January 2014: Beautiful Ruins
A Beautiful Story
A lovely American starlet lands at a tiny hotel in an almost forgotten village on the Italian coast in 1962, and the young owner of the inn finds himself falling in love with her. Tragically, the actress is dying. Or is she? Jess Walter’s breathtaking novel moves effortlessly between Italy of the ’60s and modern-day Hollywood in a witty, ambitious, and thoroughly inventive story of enduring love. Kelley Carter, home department senior editor, moderated our discussion of Beautiful Ruins.
Beautiful Ruins: Chapters 1 Through 6
Hi, fellow readers:
First off: I’m happy to announce that reader IzaKorwel is the winner of the signed copy of The Partner Track. Thanks to everyone who participated in our December discussion.
Now, what do you think of Beautiful Ruins so far? I am really enjoying it but had difficulty connecting because of the volleying time periods, stories, and locations. How do you feel about this balancing act? There are so many characters to keep track of—Pasquale, Dee Moray, Amedea, the man we are waiting to come for Dee Moray, plus the other supporting cast in post–WWII Italy. And then you have Claire, Michael Deane, Shane, and Pasquale in current California.
I get a warm, romantic feeling while reading the chapters that take place in Italy. I have a Zia Valeria in my family whom I will refer to only as my aunt who is like Zia Valeria. She is direct and honest yet very warm. Very different from the cool American cinema star, Dee, who has chosen to be frank in her last days because being polite is a waste of time. Do you think this captured a cultural difference between Italians and Americans? Alvis’s influence to name the inn the Hotel Adequate View made me laugh out loud, though Alvis himself screams of a man who has suffered many disappointments because he thinks he did not manage his expectations—the complete opposite of the superlative-language-using, hyperbolically-speaking overachievers I know (possibly myself included).
Pasquale is the ultimate romantic. I aspire to be that way. I want to see the love in every situation. I thought we were going to witness some Romeo and Juliet action in Amedea’s hometown from the way Pasquale lovingly represented her in his mind, but he was nothing more than a boy toy, apparently. I was really into his idea of the cliffside tennis court because I too am a lover of the beautiful and rarely consider the inconvenience. Just imagine pulling up on your boat, sipping champagne as you’re approaching two graceful people dressed in white, running and swinging. Dee, you poor realist for killing that dream. Or are you? Stomach cancer or pregnancy? I’m dying for this to unfold. Can we all just place a bet on whether she is terminally ill or just in a “bad situation” before we continue reading?
In comparison to the scenes in Italy, the Los Angeles scenes seem obscene! The language of the characters and their affects make me cringe! I want to care about Claire but I don’t. And the way she humble-bragged about effortlessly changing that pitch and then, voilà, she is working for Michael Deane. Claire, you are the most talented entry-level pitch reader ever! That’s what I would say to a friend, because I am guilty of using “inflated language.” I would like to read about Claire actually doing something whip-smart. I do relate to Claire’s cynicism, though. I can be cynical and I think cynicism begets Luddites and stifles compassion: I hope I can learn from her evolution. Does anyone feel the same as I do about Claire? And why was there so much focus on Shane’s sartorial decision? What is Jess Walter trying to say about this spoiled, superficial, focused-on-the-wrong-things generation? Should I take offense? (Probably not, since I’m almost 10 years older than Shane so JW can’t be talking about me. Right?) I don’t even know what to make of Michael Deane yet. What do you think of him?
Beautiful Ruins: Chapters 7 Through 11 (Spoiler Alert!)
So much has happened in Chapters 7 to 11 that I don’t know what to talk about first. Yes, I do! Dee Moray was knocked up by Richard Burton! I wasn’t convinced Michael Deane was the father, especially after his line “In that sense, this little f*****... might be the only child I ever had.” What the heck does that mean? I said to my book, “Michael Deane, why can’t you just give it to me it straight,” because I yell at books I’m reading as I do at the television screen when I need answers! But it did not cross my mind that Dee Moray was playing Richard Burton’s stand-in/rebound for Liz Taylor. That could get a little volatile.
The mix of real-life cinema icons and fictional characters fascinates me. How do you feel about that? The long-winded and windy drive Pasquale took with the inebriated Burton seemed like it happened. I can clearly picture in my head the awkwardness caused by the language, culture, and sobriety barriers. On the other hand, I’m happy Donner! is not real and will never come to fruition because I know my family would force me to see it on a snowy Christmas Day.
I would like to give Michael Deane the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was just young and ambitious, trying to make his way in the cutthroat belly of the beast that is Hollywood, which is why he told a healthy pregnant woman that she was dying of stomach cancer. I think I would have had someone accidentally blow up his car if I were Dee Moray, but that’s just me. How does one move on from that? Does your feeling of relief overcome your anger?
And let’s not forget about Pat, the love child. I am totally sympathetic toward Pat. He was challenged from conception.
I am still not a fan of Claire's. Am I missing something?
What are your thoughts on these chapters? I am totally invested now. Are you?
See our discussion of Chapters 1 through 6.
Beautiful Ruins: Chapters 12 Through 16 (Spoiler Alert!)
Wow, what a terrible/perfect combination of bad luck, bad decisions, and insecurities! Don’t you hate when people tell you exactly what you never want to hear but might be the truth, as Ron did to Debra? I know I do. I’m sure Debra acknowledged to herself at some point that Alvis was not the love of her life and then she tucked that thought away and moved on. It was unfortunate that Alvis died right after she seemed grateful for him. I am sympathetic to Debra as Pat seemed like an extremely difficult kid to raise alone. He was possibly the downfall of her life. I feel bad even writing that, but after whatever few minutes of pleasure when he was conceived, it’s been all compromise and struggle for Dee since. What do you think? Has Dee brought this all upon herself?
Pasquale’s life is sad too. His mother died and he tells the truth: “My aunt killed her.” What?! And then his aunt ran into the hills. What?!
I am impressed by the way Jess Walter has been able to seamlessly navigate us through Shane’s pitch, 1960s Italy, current Hollywood, Michael Deane’s unpublished chapter, and 1970s Seattle. I’m loving every chapter, though Claire and Shane still bore me. Alvis seems to be searching for something indescribable and intangible. Did he lose himself in the war or is he just never happy in the present? Is that why he is writing about the past and avoiding reality by getting drunk all the time?
I can’t wait for Claire, Shane, Pasquale, Michael Deane, and Debra to all come face to face!
See our discussion of Chapters 1 through 6 and Chapters 7 through 11.
Beautiful Ruins: Chapters 17 Through 21 (Spoiler Alert!)
“I love your face,” said Fantom with an F. I love that line. Fantom was the only person to acknowledge Michael Deane’s masterpiece—his face.
Jess Walter is brilliant. He navigated us through time periods, abandoned book chapters, plays, and movie pitches with ease. I loved it! I could not predict what would happen from chapter to chapter.
I could not devour the chapter when the characters all came together in Idaho fast enough. Were you all as naïve as I was and think Michael Deane was looking for Dee Moray to make amends? I guess I wanted to believe that his decency was going to be revealed. We want what we want.
The way JW gave us updates on all the major and minor players in the book in the final chapter was genius. I was not expecting to find out about PE Steve getting married. I am geniunely happy for him. And I am so thrilled Pat and Debra reconnected!
What do you all think? I know some of you were dubious about the book: Did you feel that way at the end, too, or did it all come together for you? Please let me know, and if you have questions, post them, too, because Jess Walter will answer them for us.
Jess, I really want to know how you were able to keep track of characters and time periods and make it all work without dizzying the reader. How did you come up with the idea to use real people like Liz and Dick in a fictional story? Can you also tell me more about Claire? I feel like I could not get to know her. Also, I would like a picture of her gorg boy Darryl. I envision him with dark hair. Am I right?
Thanks for reading, everyone!
See our discussion of Chapters 1 through 6, Chapters 7 through 11, and Chapters 12 through 16.
A Q&A With Jess Walter About Beautiful Ruins
Two pieces of news here. First, the obvious: Jess Walter writes back to us with his answers to our questions about Beautiful Ruins. And then this fun little surprise: We were also sent a signed copy of the book. So into a large envelope went the names of all of our January discussion participants, and out I pulled BringSunshine; our congratulations to her! Now read on to see what Jess Walter had to say about his newfound appreciation of Richard Burton, the role Shakespeare plays in his work, and the challenges and complexities of writing fiction.
From reader EricaBrown430: My question for Jess would be why didn’t he go the predictable route and have Pasquale and Dee get together earlier in the book?
Thanks, Erica. I don’t think I’d ever be interested in writing a predictable story. I was far more interested in the power of certain moments in our lives to define us, and in imagining a moment between two people so powerful that, 50 years later, they both remain moved by it. I think the potential of romance—especially in fiction—is often more interesting than the fulfillment of it. The ending, to me, wasn’t so much a summary of the characters as a re-creation of the novel in miniature—all those stories swirling around in one last present tense before we dropped in on the story that launched it all 50 years earlier: Dee and Pasquale coming to terms with the different paths their lives took after that one moment together.
From reader CatKib: Are you an “old” movie fan, especially Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor films? What made you interested in his (Burton’s) life?
I am a bit of an old movie fan, but I wasn’t really a fan of Richard Burton’s until I started writing the book. With novels, especially, your research often leads you around by the nose. I decided that the woman would arrive in Italy in the early 1960s and then I had to decide what she was doing there, and once I realized she was an American actress, I began to research what she might be doing in Italy at that time. Once I started researching Cleopatra I became fascinated, especially with Burton, whose charismatic nature and career seemed to reflect back on some of the themes of the novel—love and ambition and the lovely crash of our dreams into the mess of real life.
From reader aStarc: There were so many characters and they were all believable. Their stories were of my elderly neighbor or could have been the teacher at my local university. How did these characters come to life? Where did you get inspiration for their personal stories?
Thanks, aStarc. It’s hard to say where all the stories come from. I worked on the book for 15 years and the inspirations over that time are many and varied. Sometimes, I’ll start with an image of someone—Dee in her hat, for instance—and build from there. Often the characters are pondering something I’ve been pondering—fate or ambition or the sacrifice of parenthood. But other times I just try to imagine who they might be—what would a German painter be doing in Italy—and then I just try to put myself in that person’s thoughts.
From reader IzaKorwel: My question to Jess Walter would be, what the book was supposed to be about: What was this one idea, this one take home message we should get from it? And does he have an inside knowledge of workings of Hollywood? Is this how it was?
Ha! I’m sorry, IzaKorwel, but I’m afraid I can’t boil 120,000 words down to one idea. If I could, I might’ve written a tweet instead of a novel. It’s what I love about literature; there is no “take-home message” except the work itself, which will affect every reader differently. For some, it will be about the power of sacrifice in our lives; for others it will be about the state we arrive at when our dreams have given way to reality; for others it will be about the way Hollywood has affected the way we see ourselves. I’m in a men’s Shakespeare group and rereading the Bard has reminded me that, in this time when we want simple answers to things, the truth is profound and beautiful because it can’t be simplified. To fall in love is to doom yourself and to not fall in love is also to doom yourself and in that paradox lies the ambitions of all literature. In my own reading, I work hard to avoid novels that provide a moral or boil down to one simple idea. That’s called advertising.
From RS.com deputy editor Maura Fritz: Which of the characters was the hardest for you to write, and which was the most fun? And what was it like to create the “character” of Richard Burton as he appears in this book?
Richard Burton was one of my favorite characters (and thank you for referring to him that way; obviously, he’s based on the real person, but the Richard Burton in the novel is as fictional as any character in there). I also loved Pasquale’s view of the world and found myself happy whenever I returned to his decent and caring [outlook]. But I also liked writing the rakes and narcissists. One of my favorite chapters to write was Michael Deane’s autobiography. In looking for some way to represent his irrepressible, never-pause voice, I decided to write the whole chapter without commas.
From discussion leader Kelley Carter: I really want to know how you were able to keep track of characters and time periods and make it all work without dizzying the reader. How did you come up with the idea to use real people like Liz and Dick in a fictional story? Can you also tell me more about Claire? I feel like I could not get to know her. Also, I would like a picture of her boy Darryl. I envision him with dark hair. Am I right?
Thanks, Kelly. Some readers ARE dizzied by all of the characters, of course. I think there’s a balance I try to strike in not underestimating readers but also not needlessly confusing them either. And, of course, not every reader will love every book. I tend to like stories that braid different times and characters into a full narrative, and I like just dropping in on those moments and becoming oriented. As for using real characters, I’m afraid I can’t claim credit for that. Historical fiction uses real characters as the basis for fictional characters all the time and writers like E.L. Doctorow and Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo and dozens of others do it regularly. For me, Richard Burton almost barged his way into the novel. I read so much about him, that voice just seemed to want to make its way into the book. He was great fun to imagine in the world I’d created. Claire was, in some ways, the clearest example of someone finding themselves looking back on their dreams of life and realizing that the world was a more complex place than they’d imagined. I could see Darryl with dark hair. I also think he probably needs to shave around 2 p.m. every day.
Cheers and thank you!